The Pittsburgh Penguins won’t need to wait on an arbitrator’s decision with regards to Zach Aston-Reese. The young forward has re-signed with the team, inking a two-year contract that will carry an average annual value of $1MM. Aston-Reese was scheduled for an arbitration hearing today. GM Jim Rutherford released a short statement on the signing:
Zach is a responsible player who plays a solid two-way game. He has a heavy style of play that is especially effective on the forecheck and penalty kill.
The deal leaves the 24-year old Aston-Reese a restricted free agent again in 2021, as long as he participates in 21 more NHL games before then. That seems extremely likely, as the former Northeastern University standout has developed into a nice depth option for the team that can play in several different situations. Signing with the Penguins after a 63-point senior season at Northeastern, the undrafted Aston-Reese made a great impression on the organization by recording eight points in ten games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He made his NHL debut the following season, and ended up playing 43 regular season games (and four playoff contests) with the team in 2018-19.
One thing that stood out in Aston-Reese’s senior season at Northeastern was his net-front ability, as he was routinely able to find loose pucks in tight and put them in the back of the net. That same nose around the net has actually led to 12 goals in 59 NHL games, a solid rate for a young player with varying levels of opportunity. He has averaged just over 13 minutes a night over those games, but played as much as 18:30 and as little as 8:00 depending on where he’s slotted into the lineup.
That kind of versatility—Aston-Reese has lined up beside everyone from Sidney Crosby to Matt Cullen at different times—makes him a nice piece for the Penguins as they try to find a little different roster construction heading into 2019-20. With Phil Kessel gone and several new faces on board, it’s not clear at all how the lines will shake out at this point. At the very worst, Aston-Reese is likely ticketed for a depth role on the NHL roster this season, given he would need to clear waivers to be sent to the AHL.
With Marcus Pettersson still to sign however, the Penguins now project to be just over the $81.5MM cap ceiling for next season. Though that could be dealt with by carrying fewer than 23 players at the start of the year, it seems much more likely that Rutherford will find another trade to clear some room over the next few months. If that deal sends a forward out of town, the opportunity for Aston-Reese should only increase.